The Now + Next: Six key steps for a successful return to the workplace

The Now + Next: Six key steps for a successful return to the workplace

As leaders finalize plans for hybrid work environments and/or returning employees to the workplace, what’s key is to not set that date and see it as a finish line for the organization. Instead, see it as a milestone to continuing the transformation. Now is an opportunity to improve the value proposition for employees and to set a vision for what happens next. Leaders should use this moment to redefine the future of work for their organizations.

Executives who approach returning to the workplace with a finish line mentality could soon be left behind: outpaced by competitors and deserted by talent as part of the predicted “turnover tsunami,” which seems like it’s underway already in certain sectors and industries. Collectively, we are on a journey of constant adaptation. And the organizations that are best able to engage employees effectively will drive business results faster and emerge more resilient.

Short-term considerations

Most organizations are well underway in defining policies and implementing operational plans to return more fully to the workplace. It’s a complex and delicate balance between what the business needs and what employees want. Impact on real estate, taxes, financials, and health and safety are among the myriad issues executives are balancing. But one of the most critical issues is the policy around returning employees to the workplace and doing so effectively. Studies show that most employees want the option of working remotely more often than executives want. So, there’s an expectation gap that needs to be closed.

Leaders are focused on productivity, collaboration, and culture. Many believe those will all be enhanced by returning to in-person team structures; however, the priority for employees is clearly flexibility, in both scheduling and work location. That’s particularly true for workers who are parents or caretakers.

It’s worth noting that, according to Gallup, Gen Z and millennials now make up 46% of the full-time workforce in the United States. When polled, that group said the number one thing they were looking for in their employer was “caring for employees’ wellbeing.” Given that, it’s wise for executives to pay close attention to the mindsets and desires of their evolving workforce as they finalize plans to return to the workplace.

Six key longer-term considerations to make the return successful

As leaders look ahead to meeting the needs of their employees and increasing productivity in the continued transition to the workplace, here are six key components to keep in mind: 

1. More information builds trust and certainty

Employees want more certainty about post-pandemic working arrangements, even if you don’t yet know what to tell them. It’s important that team members not only have a long lead time on knowing when and how often they will be on-site, but they want to know the factors that will be considered in making that decision and why. While leaders may not have all the answers now, communicating the thought process, incorporating science-based decision triggers, and clearly establishing key milestones will go a long way toward building trust.

2. Well-being and welfare remain a priority

As the vaccination process continues, high anxiety about health and safety is lessening, but employees will feel more confident knowing how they are being protected on-site.

  • Socialize operational and physical office changes in advance. Define who is responsible for enforcing new safety rules and where employees can discreetly report violations.
  • Go one step further and have a decision framework and operational model in place before people return to the workplace. This includes a plan for sending employees home if there’s a spread of the coronavirus in the workplace.
  • Finally, give thought to what the organization’s stance will be on vaccine incentives and booster vaccines, which health experts predict could likely be needed in the fall.

More broadly, if you haven’t already, take steps to tackle employee well-being and resilience for the long-term. Mental health experts say the impact on workers doesn’t end when the pandemic is under control and a hybrid work environment will mean new issues to navigate, so be prepared.

3. Define collaboration and technology expectations

Once the return to the workplace phases in, employees simply want to know what’s expected of them and how it’s all going to work.

  • For employees working remotely, what, if anything, will change in a hybrid work environment, particularly around communication with teams, productivity, and deliverables?
  • Leading teams with both on-site and remote workers can introduce proximity bias, so training for managers will be essential to helping them oversee teams in hybrid environments.
  • Define expectations around collaboration between off-site and on-site workers so colleagues aren’t left out of conversations and decisions. That includes, for example, defining if new technologies will be implemented to bring remote workers into conference room meetings.
  • Seize the opportunity to rethink office space by developing more modern areas for collaboration.

4. Nailing the launch

Planning a well-orchestrated and well-communicated experience for the first week of returning to the workplace will help get your organization off to a great start.

  • Clearly communicate to employees what to expect on the first day regarding new on-site protocols and safety rules.
  • Define distinct roles and high visibility for executives and mid-level managers to guide workers through the process.
  • Seize the opportunity to build camaraderie and a renewed sense of purpose in this new environment.

5. Prepare for flexibility and adjustments

Getting this right could be key to slowing attrition and attracting new talent. Studies within the last six months show that 25-50% of employees say they plan to look for another job this year. And many are watching to see what return-to-workplace policies are put in place.

  • Many employees want to keep working remotely three or more days a week, if their job function allows. Some workers also want flexibility in the time they work during the day and flexibility to manage family matters.
  • Some employees still crave in-person collaboration and employers should be designing policies and approaches that allow teams to connect both in-person and remotely.
  • With high turnover expected, leaders should be planning now to adjust their approach to recruiting—by preparing for a surge in resignations and to better define the company’s value proposition to candidates.

6. Monitor, optimize, and set a vision for the future

Return-to-workplace planning shouldn’t end at week one. Given all the effort that went into figuring out how employees could best work from home, that same level of effort needs to be put into monitoring the success of their return at intervals of three, six, and 12 months. Are teams still efficient and productive? How are employees feeling? Is culture fracturing between remote and on-site employees?

  • Put in place a monitoring plan and agree on a set of metrics that will be tracked, then define a cadence for review and response.
  • Conduct surveys and be transparent with employees about what they show. Share the good news about what’s working and what’s being done to fix what isn’t.
  • Keep exploring how you see the business changing, and employees’ roles and responsibilities within that change. Setting and communicating a vision for the evolving workplace—and involving employees in that process—can instill ownership among employees.
Let’s recognize that we are creating the future of work right now, and that it’s evolving on a weekly—sometimes daily—basis. Returning employees to new workplace models is only one part of the journey. Ensuring that employee and organization needs are aligned will accelerate delivery and long-term growth.
ICF’s global marketing services agency focuses on helping your organization find opportunity in disruption.
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Meet the author
  1. Matt Silverman, Senior Partner, Brand and Reputation Strategy

    Matt is an expert in brand, marketing, and corporate communications strategy with more than 20 years of experience. View bio

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